The Barron River Challenge is a down-river race in tropical far north Queensland on the beautiful Barron River.

Paddlers compete in 20km or 30km sections between Mareeba and Kuranda with experienced racers paddling both stretches for the BRC50 – the ultimate 50km marathon challenge.

Day one sees entrants of all paddling abilities and crafts navigate grade one rapids and natural river course obstacles. A friendly race atmosphere attracts senior high school students, women, men and relay teams in a sport many continue to do well into their later years. After an easy morning of registration and craft scrutineering, the BRC20 starting gun fires in the early afternoon for a two to three hour paddle down swift moving water, gravel races, leafy canopies and sandy-bottomed pools.

BRC20 paddlers at Biboorah checkpoint
BRC20 and BRC50 start line in Mareeba
Canadian relay teams take off at the starter's gun

The BRC20 hosts a Canadian relay challenge where mixed teams change paddlers over three legs between Mareeba and Bilwon.

The friendly competition concludes with a BBQ and award presentations at the finish line, while BRC50 hopefuls gear up for day two…

The BRC20 course is ideal for SUPs!
Terry McClelland with decade-long BRC paddler David Lep

Experienced and fit paddlers compete in the BRC30, from Bilwon to Kuranda, or the BRC50 where entrants build on their efforts in day one to complete the full 50km marathon. Several grade two rapids are interspersed with longer pools where the river banks widen and the flow eases.

Experienced local John van Ryt on a clean sweep of Oak Forest Rapid

The finish line in the rainforest is in the heart of Kuranda where paddlers and their supporters are again treated to a well-deserved burger (or two!). Presentations are wound up by lunch time giving visitors and locals time to enjoy the beautiful natural surrounds.

In the northern region of Australia where paddling has almost become extinct due to the protection of crocodiles, the BRC stands out as a unique event.

Barron River, Mareeba Shire
Only possible with the generous support of our sponsors

Brett McDonald’s Race Report 2022

Thoughts from “Paddler Brett” aka Brett McDonald – winner of the BRC50 in 2022 – posted on our facebook page:

Barron River Challenge – a bucket list experience
Last weekend I was fortunate to compete in this event.

—How did I come to do this race?—

For those who haven’t heard of this event it takes place in tropical far north Queensland. I was on a family holiday during June in Cairns last year when Brad Butler from South Australia, who I’d only known previously through social media, popped up as being in Cairns too. We managed to catch up over breakfast where Brad told me I must come back and do the Barron River Challenge. He sold me on it and I started hatching a plan to be back this year to take part. I mentioned the idea to two other paddlers I’d got to know while I was in town Alex Pawlow and David Ahmed. Alex and Dave are certified downwind addicts and when I told them of my wish to do the event they were only too happy to offer their help. (while we’re on the topic, if you ever do visit Cairns, look them up on Cairns Ocean Ski Paddlers and maybe squeeze a downwind in with them while you’re there, they love to paddle with visitors)

Long story short, I was able to arrange for my plastic ski to get to Cairns where Alex and Dave arranged storage.

—What about the crocs?—

Okay, okay, I know it’s a burning question for many of you so I may as well get it out of the way now. Many of my friends and family have asked this question as yes, this part of the world is known for its large salt water crocodile population. So let me explain why competitors don’t need to worry about this issue.

Salt water crocs inhabit most of the rivers and creeks along the coast and travel between them via the ocean, hence the term “salt water”.

If you’ve ever been to Cairns you will know that it’s surrounded by steep and high hills which divide Cairns from what’s called the tablelands. Once you are up and over those hills you meet the wide open tablelands that sit 600m to 1100 metres above the coastal plain.

This is where the spectacular Barron river falls creates a natural barrier to salt water crocs travelling further upstream.

My wife Julie, before the event was adamant she wasn’t going near the water for fear of crocs. At the completion of the event, after seeing all the locals paddling the race and other women having a crack she was challenging others to race in a double boat on day one next year!

—Okay, but where is the race?—

Day one of the Barron River Challenge is only a 50 minute scenic drive from Cairns to a small town called Mareeba, where the river runs through it. (For my Perth friends, think of Northam. Much like Northern, McDonald’s is literally only a few hundred metres from the race start near the town bridge.)

—Who runs the race?—

The race is put on by members of the local Tinaroo Canoe Club. This is a grass roots paddling club situated at Lake Tinaroo, further upstream from Mareeba. Lake Tinaroo acts as a reservoir catching the water in the region so that irrigation water may supply properties along the Barron river throughout the year. For this reason the Barron River has very reliable water levels for the event. The members of Tinaroo Canoe Club looove paddling and are so welcoming of visitors. We were really welcomed with open arms when we got in touch with them beforehand. They were very keen to ensure we enjoyed the event.

—Can I see the course before hand?—

Members of the Canoe club ran guided paddles of the day one and day two sections of the river for those wanting to see what they were in for. These were done the weekend before and also offered in the week leading up to the race by arrangement with them. The race director (Terry McClelland ) will bend over backwards to make a visit from anyone outside of town as smooth as possible. I did the day one guided paddle with them and thoroughly enjoyed chatting as we glided down the river at a casual pace.

—Two races to choose from!—

While the event weekend runs over two days, there are two events run. The Barron River 20 on Saturday and the Barron River 50 which is both day one and an extra 30km on day two! By far the most popular event is the “20” held on day one. It’s a race for all paddlers whatever your ability.

Day two adds another 30km to make up the Barron River 50 event. Day two really for those who have experience in white water as there are some tricky rapids to negotiate.

—What boat can you paddle?—

Quite frankly, you can paddle anything day one. (I’m sure there are rules, but stay with me.) I’m sure there were those who walked into the local BCF or Anaconda and said. “Sell me the cheapest plastic ski you got, a helmet and a paddle, because I’m going racing today” and just showed up! I loved seeing that, people just having a crack!

—It’s far north Queensland, we can’t rush anything!—

The day one event is a very chilled affair. Registration opens at 10am, the welcome and briefing at 12:30pm ant starting grids commence from 1pm with the last grid at 1.30pm. I loved having plenty of time to setup my boat, mingle and meet new paddlers and catch up with others I knew were coming.

—What’s the Day One 20km course like?—

Now you know that it’s doable in pretty much anything that floats, another great aspect of the day one course is that it’s so much fun! The river is narrow so the flow carries you along even if you are a slow paddler. There are twists and bends but nowhere for you to get lost along the way. There are sections where the rainforest creates a canopy and it’s like paddling through a green tunnel, with the only sound the trickling of the river and the calls of the native birds.

Paddlers are sent off in small groups of a similar speed (as judged by the organisers) and as the faster paddlers start at the rear and well after the slower paddlers start it kept the field fairly close together.

—Chilling with the locals!—

The end of day one finishes at a property called “Bilwon Farms”. The private property has a huge grassed area for setting up tents, caravans and campers as well as some donga style cabins. There’s a very large modern shed with kitchen, hot showers, toilets and plenty of sheltered open area to hang out in if there is any rain around.

When we walked up from the river the club already had a feed of burgers cooking and ready to serve!

I’m disappointed I didn’t research this aspect of the event as it would have been great to stay overnight and chill out with the locals. Still, it’s great to be relatively close to Cairns if you did want to head back into town for the night otherwise there’s plenty of tourist accommodation in the area.

When we returned there in the morning for day two’s racing the club had bacon and egg burgers to greet the day two crowd!

—The coolest trophies—

The trophies awarded for both the 20 and the 50 are locally handmade blown glass. The Barramundi fish for the men and ladies winners, a sea turtle for second place and a platypus for third. The winners are also inscribed on a perpetual trophy for each event.

The race organisers have been diligent in keeping race times for each event over the years, so if you are the competitive type you can aim to have a crack at records for your age group and distance.

—Okay, so I want to go but how do I arrange a boat?—

Great, I knew you’d want to go! Tinaroo Canoe Club has plenty of suitable boats to loan/hire paddlers for the day one Barron 20 event and last I spoke to race organiser Terry, will be working on creating a list so you can choose what you’d like to paddle before booking your flight or embarking on your drive up there.

—But what about day two, the full Barron River 50 race?—

Day two is a big step up from day one as far as fitness and skills are concerned. It’s not as technical as an Avon Descent but there are plenty of ways to hole a boat or get stuck and have to portage. Incidentally I got stuck plenty of times when we did a reeky paddle of the day two course and had to wade through trees and over rocks to find the main flow again. I loved every minute of it! The weather is warm, the water is cool (but not cold) and I could have done it all day, it was genuinely fun. Come the race I chose to follow the best of the locals most of the day (John and then Geoff) and it worked a charm as well as being good company. The Day two finish is in Kuranda which is a pretty little tourist town that if you are travelling with family, they will love. Look up all the attractions there! The great thing about day two is it gets started early and presentations are done by lunchtime so you have plenty of time to enjoy the sites around town before you head back into Cairns.

I hope to see you there next year!

Matt Blundell’s race report 2012

Matt Blundell was the Australian Canoeing Open Male – Marathon Paddler of the Year- 2014. Here is his take on the 2012 BRC50.

“Brett, Stu and I meet up with our families at Cairns airport for a week’s holiday before we paddle the Barron River Race the following week. After a week of relaxing and swimming in the hotel pool at Palm Cove we head to Mareeba for the start of the Barron River Race, which is 50km and runs from Mareeba to Kuranda. This is a definite step up from the Gregory River with several major rapids to negotiate. The river is running at 1.73 which is up from the last few days as they were able to get a water release from the dam at the last minute but is still well down on last year’s level of 1.92m.

Cruisin’ down the River The river is quite narrow at the start so a staggered start is necessary. Faster craft are last to start so we have to wait for the slower plastic craft to leave before we are able to hit the water. We have no idea what the river holds in store for us as we did not get the opportunity to do a practice run like we did with the Gregory Race. We have to rely on local’s advice about the river and everyone had a different story to tell! After seeing the trophy at registration we were sure there were plenty of rocks, rapids, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, platypus and logs to contend during the race! Swimming was not an option here! The first 12km of the Barron is narrow winding river with a few small rapids. Nice moving water, very similar to the Gloucester Mountain Man paddle section for those who know it, only following faster. In this section I am able to stay in front of the K2 as all the turns make the K1 a big advantage. The river widens for the next 15km with intermittent rapids. These rapids are grade 1-2 but fairly challenging with the low water level. They take a toll on the kayaks, especially the K2, which takes a hammering. Having put some distance between the K2, I portage my first rapid, the biggie of the day, 200m long with a grade 3 drop at the bottom. I arrive at the 31km check point and have only another 19km to go. Still feeling good and with no sign of the K2 I push on. I come to a small rapid with a metre drop at the bottom…. all goes well until a branch pushes me in….. my 1st and only swim of the day. It only takes about 30seconds and I’m up and going again with 15km remaining to the finish.

Faster, Faster This section involves a series of small boney rapids with flat stretches in between. I portage a couple of these as I took the wrong side of the river and ran out of water. I finish in 3hr 57min for a new race record. Brett and Stu came in 15min later in second place with a very beat up kayak. I would strongly recommend both these races and combining the two makes for a great holiday. We found the organiser’s to be very helpful and accommodating. All going well I will be back for both next year. Matt Blundell.”